What Does Self-Censorship Data Show?

In a recent essay, James L. Gibson and Joseph L. Sutherland summarize public opinion research over the past 66 years on responses to the question “Do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?” They conclude, “Americans are much more likely to self-censor today than in the past.” I don’t think that conclusion is warranted.

Here’s their graphical summary of the data:

Gibson Sutherland Self Censorhip

What the data show is that a greater percentage of people over time (excepting the past five years) tell researchers they feel less free to speak their mind.

But it does not follow from subjects telling researchers that they feel less free to speak their minds that they in fact “are much more likely to self-censor today than in the past.”

Why not?

Stasi Surveillance

Imagine you are an ordinary citizen living in a repressive totalitarian society, such as East Germany in the 1970s. A researcher knocks on your door or calls you on the phone and asks you if you feel free to speak your mind. What will you say? What would most people under those circumstances say? Something like “Yes, absolutely I do,” right?

Would it be reasonable for researchers to conclude from most respondents answering “Yes” that people aren’t self-censoring? Of course not; the respondents are so vigilant about censoring themselves that they’ll self-censor on that topic, too. They’re worried about the consequences of people finding out they have an unpopular or subervsive view others might ostracize or punish them for. (Note that the lowest “self-censorship” rates in the data Gibson and Sutherland cite is from 1954, when the United States had been subject to years of Mcarthyism.)

The lesson is that people have to be sufficiently secure in their own freedom of expression to not censor their admission that they often engage in self-censorship.

This means survey results like the ones Gibson and Sutherland discuss much more difficult to interpret than they make it appear.

Their interpretation of the increase over time in respondents answering “I don’t” to “Do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?” is that people are more likely to engage in self-censorship now than in the past. But a competing interpretation of those results is that people today are less likely to engage in self-censorship, since they’re less likely to censor their opinion that they feel less free to speak their mind.

Sometimes, what people are saying is in tension with that they are saying it. This might be one of those times.

(Suppose, though, that Gibson and Sutherland are correct that people are more likely to engage in self-censorship now than in the past. What should we think of this? I think the answer will depend, in part, on the explanation for the increase in self-censorship, a topic I hope to take up in a future post.)

[image: photo of Stasi surveillance]

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